Ethics and Genetics in Software

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Ethics and Genetics
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The Lysenko Affair
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the Lysenko affair in the former Soviet Union during Stalin s and Krushchev s reigns. Tro m Denisovich Lysenko was a biologist in the former Soviet Union researching the effects of temperature on plant development. At the same time, the preeminent Soviet geneticist was Nikolai Vavilov.Vavilov was interested in improving Soviet crop yields by growing and mating many varieties and selecting the best to be the breeding stock of the next generation. This is the standard way of improving a plant crop or livestock breed (see chapter 18, Quantitative Inheritance ). The method conforms to genetic principles and therefore is successful. However, it is a slow process that only gradually improves yields.
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Lysenko suggested that crop yields could be improved quickly by the inheritance of acquired characteristics (see chapter 21, Evolution and Speciation ). Although doomed to fail because they denied the true and correct mechanisms of inheritance, Lysenko s ideas were greeted with much enthusiasm by the political elite. The enthusiasm was due not only to the fact that Lysenko promised immediate improvements in crop yields, but also to the fact that Lysenkoism was politically favored. That is, Lysenkoism t in very well with communism; it promised that nature could be manipulated easily and immediately. If people could manipulate nature so easily, then communism could easily convert people to its doctrines. Not only did Stalin favor Lysenkoism, but Lysenko himself was favored politically over Vavilov because Lysenko came from peasant stock, whereas Vavilov was from a wealthy family. (Remember that communism
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mate these short-tailed mice to see if their offspring have shorter tails. If they do not, you could conclude that a shortened tail, an acquired characteristic, is not inherited. If, however, the next generation of mice have tails shorter than those of their parents, you could conclude that acquired characteristics can be inherited. One point to note is that every good experiment has a control, a part of the experiment that ensures that some unknown variable, often speci c to a particular time and place, is not causing the observed changes. For example, in your experiment, the particular food the mice ate may have had an effect on their growth, resulting in offspring with shorter tails. To control for this, you could handle a second group of mice in the exact same way that the experimental mice are handled, except you would not cut off their tails. Any reduction in the lengths of the tails of the offspring of the control mice would indicate an artifact of the experiment rather than the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The point of doing this experiment (with the control group), as trivial as it might seem, is to determine the an-
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swer to a question using data based on what happens in nature. If you design your experiment correctly and carry it out without error, you can be con dent about your results. If your results are negative, as ours would be here, then you would reject your hypothesis. Testing hypotheses and rejecting those that are refuted is the essence of the scienti c method. In fact, most of us live our lives according to the scienti c method without really thinking about it. For example, we know better than to step out into traf c without looking because we are aware, from experience (observation, experimentation), of the validity of the laws of physics. Although from time to time antiintellectual movements spread through society, few people actually give up relying on their empirical knowledge of the world to survive (box 1.1). Nothing in this book is inconsistent with the scienti c method. Every fact has been gained by experiment or observation in the real world. If you do not accept something said herein, you can go back to the original literature, the published descriptions of original experi-
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